Life

I'm Desperately Craving Decent Coffee

You can still get coffee, I know, but it's everything I associate with a takeaway cup that I'm missing right now.
illustrated by Lily Blakely
13 May 2020, 8:30am
illustration man on phone coffee shop

Previously in "What I Miss Most": Worrying about nothing.

It is very hard to talk about coffee without crossing a weird invisible threshold into "adult coffee fanatic".

Nobody wants to be this. Coffee is an incredibly normal, everyday drink – something you consume without thinking, half the time! Something that, despite what an artifice of snobbery will tell you, is perfectly fine in granulated form! – that has amassed a psychotically strange cult fandom around it. You don't get this with bread, or milk (this is half a lie: you get "sourdough people", and there was that raw milk movement a couple of years ago, but broadly nobody is getting a mug printed up with "Don't Talk To Me Until I've Drunk My Milk" or yelling at you if you slice your bread wrong).

At the start of the year I took Dry January to its logical conclusion, which was: rolling it into the first couple of weeks of February. I didn't do this to be preachy – that was just a happy byproduct – but because I had a lot of work to do, and needed the pure focus that only really comes from a truly clear head, and alcohol is a depressant and I didn't really want to start my year in that kind of mood, etc, etc. All the usual shit. In January this is fine because more-or-less everyone is broke and avoiding the pub, and I enjoyed the month of paring back my social calendar and waking up bright and early, and for a while the clouds parted and the sun shone into my brain and bleached out all the moths and dust, and— alright, OK. I missed holding a cup with liquid in it.

Is there some tactile magic to holding a cup with liquid in it? I think there is. There is some incremental change to my own internal feeling of masculinity when I stand outside a pub, legs splayed, sunglasses on, catching the last few beams of sunlight before the Bank Holiday is gone, holding a pint at forearm's length in front of myself and laughing. It's like it tilts my centre of gravity away from myself (me: bad) and giddily towards the world (world: full of possibility and wonder).

It's impossible to know what I truly miss about the pub, and having a pint inside it. Is it "being seethingly mad at an adjacent table because they are having fun in a way that is louder than I personally like", or "a urinal wrapped in clingfilm to indicate that it is OUT OF ORDER", or "being ignored at the bar for three people who very clearly – just so obviously, so clearly – arrived here after me, are you fucking joking mate, are you really serving her first?"? It is impossible to know. But one thing I definitely miss is just holding something, in front of my body, and feeling the quiet, hefty weight of it, and feeling a small rush of calm.

So anyway: sobriety, long, sun-slashed walks, frothy coffee. Holding a coffee and walking around with it in those great late-January days – air so cold you can bite it, big jacket on, shades against the glare – made me feel adult, continental, a sophisticate, and helped fill the Holding Liquid void that howled inside my body.

Last year I discovered that oat milk is the best alternate milk for coffee (froths nicely, and its malty undertone complements the coffee best – please just backspace the email you're about to send me about "soy", because I will delete it) and so I would replace pints in the evening by chain-drinking coffee during the day: start with a morning Monmouth, crawl through Soho until I made it to a mid-morning Milkbar, hit up Flat White some time after lunch. Days spent cutting around, picking up books, listening to podcasts, solo lunch for one. Jittering my skeleton out of my fucking flesh because I'd had six shots of caffeine. Going home and lying motionless, eyes closed but mind open, in bed. Sleep restlessly and wake up aching. Loop it round and do it all over again. I love it.

Some coffee shops are still open, I know this, but honestly none of the good ones, and the ones that approach good have those long winding lines outside them, and frankly I don't fancy risking my health and also, like, 45 minutes of my day to queue up and buy exactly one cup of coffee (this, too, is adult coffee fanatic behaviour, and something I personally have to work very hard to avoid). But then it's not really about the coffee, or the temperature of the water when it's poured over the beans, or the distinct idea of holding some liquid in front of me, or anything like that: what I miss is that very particular precious gem of everyday life, and the fact that I no longer have access to it.

Yes, I can still feasibly queue up with a mask on and buy an oat latte. But I can't meander around with it in my hands. I can't dip into bookshops and browse while taking sips of it. It's not the caffeine I miss, it's the stretching, yawning feeling of a mid-to-late Sunday morning, of pootling around while nibbling on a brownie, of going into fancy shops and smelling all the candles, then leaving. It's not coffee that I miss, though I miss it. It's the very specific note of reality that coffee represents.

Catch me in Fix 126 again when this is all over, openly weeping at the concept of a flat white.

@joelgolby / @lilyblkly

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